Yesterday, I was at the YMCA, struggling through my crunches on a floor mat, when I overhead the following conversation between a woman, still in her work clothes, and a man, who had just stepped off the treadmill. Having arrived to my floor mat midway through their conversation, I never learned how they were acquainted, although they’d clearly made it to the neurosis-sharing stage of any relationship.
“I didn’t even want the red vines,” she said. “I don’t like red vines.”
“Well,” he said, “Why’d you eat them?”
“They were there! I mean, we’d been in this meeting for ages, and someone passed around this big tub, and what are you going to do?”
She repeated. “I didn’t even want the red vines!”
“I’m a small person,” she continued. (She was.) “600 extra calories is a lot for me.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know what always gets me? The bagels.”
They both shook their heads, and said their goodbyes. She headed into the locker room to change, a bundle of red vine energy waiting to be burned.
We’ve all been there—in a meeting, at a party, at a conference. Food is passed around and it’s not food you’d really like to be consuming. But everyone else is eating it, and so you do, too.
Food has powerful social implications—across the world, across history, food and drink have been the substances that we’ve convened around, that have pulled us together. And so, naturally, forgoing the food in the middle of the table can feel like you’re forgoing the reason for convening in the first place.
The social pressures of eating unprocessed were, for me, enormous. Eating unprocessed in social or work situations was the most difficult part of my year unprocessed and, now that it’s over, remain so.
I get asked a lot: Now that your year is over, what do you eat? How “processed” are you now?
Today, the truce I’ve made with processed foods is a social one. When I ended my official year, after having worked so hard to set unprocessed habits in place, it was just as easy to keep going than it was to dive back into the world of processed. Yes, it’s true—I spent a few days eating Safeway chocolate chip cookies and Cheddar Chex mix, just because I could. But then I felt horrible, waking up with food hangovers, craving the easy equilibrium of the diet I’d established over the course of my year. What I did love was my newfound ability to, say, have a slice of pizza if the occasion called for it—what I loved was the freedom to, once in awhile, be social and processed.
Today, processed foods make up about 10 percent of the foods I eat. If I eat 21 meals a week, one or two of them might be processed. But always those processed meals are eaten out or among people (and rarely do they ever contain “highly processed” foods like cheese whiz or, well, red vines). Last weekend, a friend invited us over to their house for a barbecue and I ate a bratwurst nestled in a fluffy white bun. I’d made homemade hummus and brought a bag of unprocessed sweet potato chips (ingredients: sweet potato, salt, oil) so I was able to avoid the more-processed Pita chips, but there was something about partaking in what had been prepared that was immensely satisfying. It was what I’d craved during my year—the connection that is forged over shared food, no matter what that food is made of.
Still—eating 90 percent unprocessed leaves little wiggle room for office snacks or conference treats, and so I sympathize with the bundle of Red Vine-regret I stumbled upon. Sometimes, you have to value your own body’s health and happiness over the expected norm of what you should do—should eat—in a given circumstance. I happen to believe if everyone said, “No thanks, I’ll skip the Red Vines/bagels/cookies,” people would stop bringing them.
How to ward off surprise processed attacks:
Bring your own contributions. If you know you’re going to be stuck in an all-day meeting, stop at the store and pick out food that you can live with eating. Apples are always appreciated and quite portable; ditto for oranges or veggie trays. If you’re in a pinch, Lay’s Potato Chips are not healthy, but they contain only potatoes, oil, and salt. Lots of pre-popped popcorn brands contain the same ingredient trifecta (but with corn, obviously).
Travel with food. I don’t leave the house without a Larabar or baggy full of almonds in my purse. If you have unprocessed munchies at your disposal, you’re much less likely to agree to the foods you don’t really want to eat.
Talk about why you’re refusing. The person offering may have no idea why you don’t want their food. I might say, “Oh, I’m trying to avoid refined sugars, but thanks!” Or: “I’m doing this thing where I’m trying to cut out food colorings and additives. Thanks!” Self-deprecating humor is a useful tool in the refusing food toolbox, but honesty is even better.
From Tucson to Texas, from work meetings to friend’s parties—again and again, I was surprised at how readily people accepted my decision not to eat processed food. Often, I think, it’s something most people wished they could do (or would do) but don’t know how to go about it. Although it was challenging, at the end of the day (or year), it really wasn’t. People accepted me and my eating quirks, or they didn’t. And my social (and professional) life continued along, just fine.
That said, sometimes you can’t pass up the Red Vines—because you might actually want them; because you might not want to refuse; because you might just want to join the fun. And that’s okay. We all slip up. You can always start again tomorrow.